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Thief: Hands-On Impressions

I dislike first-person stealth games almost as much as I like third-person ones.

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'Dislike' is probably the wrong word. I'm just utterly crap at them.

It's something about the lack of spatial awareness that unnerves me, given how success hinges on eluding an enemy's sight. I've an inability to easily track enemy movement and their sight lines.

Without the freedom of a wider 360 camera pan to check my surroundings before shifting from cover, I become clumsy. Self-doubt clouds my mind. If I get caught, lack of experience in combat or flight usually means I'm diced before I can work out how to do either. I've as much faith in my own salvation as a priest dunked in whisky.

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And I know the problem's me, not them. I can appreciate the craft that's went into the likes of Dishonored, but come review I handed it over to a colleague so it could get a fair appraisal and my TV could avoid a controller being buried in it.

Maybe then I'm not the first choice to best judge whether Eidos Montreal have succeeded in reinterpreting the iconic Thief franchise, much as the same studio (if a different team within it) did with Deus Ex. Or maybe it's the complete opposite. I walk out of the hands-on session two hours later having not uttered a single expletive, nor mashed the Xbox 360 controller in anger at being caught short. Sublime control, compelling world and great audio instilled something in me that few of the genre have done - confidence.

We've mentioned in our previous hands-off impressions how the studio have enforced master thief Garrett's interaction with his environment by way of his outstretched hands, as appear on screen to grip corners and slide round painting frames under player control to locate hidden switches. It's such a small thing, but we've seen how much something like this makes the character feel much more connected, and part of, the world in other games - The Last of Us and Tomb Raider especially.

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It's a tiny addition here, but it makes a stupid amount of difference to how much we feel immersed in the world. Any time we grab corner cover, Garrett's hand snakes out to grasp the wall or object we've stolen behind. If you're near another corner, a button press will twist you quickly round to do the same there. Peer out with a touch of the stick, and the first-person camera work will shift convincingly to mimic a body leaning out. I find myself constantly paralleling the thief's movement in my chair. As Garrett palms painting frames to find a hidden lever, I almost miss the tell-tale switch icon that pops up on the game screen, as I have my head tilted to one side, as if I'm in the room conducting the illegal activity myself. The tactile connection gives you as richer sense of being there.

There's as much enjoyment from Garrett's nimbleness as he moves through The City. There's no jump button, but holding LT as you approach low rises will have Garrett automatically vault up them, or coupled with a quick twitch of the camera upwards, he'll snake up walls and onto roofs as you approach them. Another button tap while dashing and you'll perform a slide, coupled with a great audio cue of a rippling cloak.

Garrett be nimble, Garrett be quick, but Garrett not be so fit; running's generous but limited to short dashes, a heart icon flashing on-screen to indicate the thief's near exhaustion. Built in no doubt to stop you continuously playing merry hell with guards - there's still a element of fear layered into your escape if you're spotted.

Equally so his leaps towards adjoining catwalks or off ropes towards ledges are so short that despite the tightness of the dense city streets and their rooftops. You can't free-run the entirety of an area's topside. Roofs are that bit too far part, while the streets buried below are full of sharp corners and dead ends.

We're patrolling Stone Market, but one part of a bigger district, several of which make up The City in which the events of Thief take place. As with the other districts, Stone Market is a central hub, a labyrinth of winding streets, shadow-infested alleyways and roof paths, and littered with beggars and circling patrols. It offers its own diversions outside your actual missions. Even with the clock tower that serves as Garrett's home continuously dominating the skyline as the one anchoring landmark, it still takes me most of the session to get to grips with the hub layout.

There's three tiers of paths from street to roof, multiple door exits to other areas and openable windows tucked away here and there. Access points leading upwards are few, and some require rigging. The rope from which a heavy cargo crate dangles can be cut, so the box can be used a stepping stone onto a roof. Elsewhere, a ladder's lock needs broken with a well-aimed arrow so it can be dropped down and be within reaching distance.

Outstretched pillars with tell-tale ropes tied round their ends need rope arrows shot into them to allow travel up and across rooftops. Tight streets below purposely emphasis claustrophobia, but are a heavy fusion of well-lit main thoroughfares and darker corners and alleys. There's a lowered square out the back of two houses that becomes an essential hiding point later when we're being pursued by guards.

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Today's session has us arrowing towards the Crippled Burrick to converse with Bosso, one of Garrett's few allies, all round scoundrel and for today, our mission giver. We've a choice of four objectives to pursue and we swipe them all. Following a pointer by the team during the pre-game presentation, we ghost round the corner and converse with a local trader; any swiped goods are instantly turned to gold coin, so you only need to choose how to spend your cash with him.

For the sake of the demo, and to allow us to test all the equipment, the Market's overflowing with golden goods to steal. We find goblets on windowsills, full purses of gold not even spitting distance from beggars. The proper game will force you to make a call on what your cash goes towards, and weigh up every arrow's use. For now though, it's Christmas.

I pick up the full compliment of arrows (limited to ten per batch), including choke arrows (to briefly distract guards) water arrows (to douse lanterns) and rope arrows - which prove essential for navigating up to important areas of Stone Market. As per the team's recommendation, everyone also picks up both wire cutters and a grate-opening wrench; buying both is an impossibility normally, and both are valuable.

You can shuffle into a sub-menu to track specific target locations, but given how compact the hub is, you're as likely to stumble upon them just be ghosting around the town (I did). I jack open a window and sneak into someone's bedroom. In an adjoining room someone's pacing back and forth, at which point I try out the Focus mode.

The ability, which like health needs to be recharged by purchasable goods (no auto-regen here), is gained early on in the game and lets Garrett 'see' items of worth and things of interest by way of a blue aura when Focus is enabled. It also represents footfalls as rippling impact rings so you can track enemy movement.

As with Hitman's Instinct meter, it's there to be ignored if you so wish. For most rooms in the demo, it's somewhat redundant anyway; sweep the camera over objects and a contextual icon pops up letting you know you can swipe them.

With a pair of good headphones on, and slipped so comfortably into Garrett's abilities, I rarely use it. As standard the UI comes with a light/dark meter on the bottom left of the screen. Eidos Montreal is generous with how much low level light masks you; you could argue it's too easy. But it grants you that powerful juxtaposition between fear of capture and graceful confidence that, well, I suppose everyone else gets from these type of games. I experience just that as I crouch-crawl around a table as a guard wanders around it, pondering the items on it without knowing I'm but two feet away.

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Sneak up behind someone and a contextual pop up will allow you to knock them unconscious (when tackling guards outside at the demo's close, I find you can charge the move for a more brutal - fatal - finisher). A few rooms I enter have closets in which you can conceal yourself, with the option to sneak back out or burst through the doors.

For one mission which involves you stealing a mirror from a locked safe, I'm lurking inside one as the man of the house strolls past. As I wait for the moment to strike, I note scrawled numbers etched into the wood beside my face. They corroborate a notation in a diary found in the other room, that they're the numbers to the safe combination.

Riffling through diaries or documents can reveal clues to solving particular missions, as well as unlocking side-quests, which are automatically added to your mission list and their locations marked on the map.

During the demo I stumble onto another two quests during pursuing the other four; one to steal goods from the Watch's storage room, another to break into a tailor's and swipe a mechanical hand. The first is brief, the doorway leading to the storage locked. An investigation of a cable running from it leads to a nearby alcove and a box. Opening it, I find a set of cogs and wires that I can take my cutters to. The door springs open.

The second is more substantial. I travel to another area which contains a two storey building, serving a tailor as both his business abode and home. It's already guarded by heavies jostling him for goods.

As I enter the area, sub-objectives flash up screen - no kills, don't be spotted. I fudge both swiftly, awareness of the session time coming to a close forcing me to be quick and rash, rather than slow and considered in my approach.

Interestingly there's a scene within the shop that I watch while concealed behind the curtain that separates the front of the store from the store room. A heavy roughs up the tailor, and after some words, kills him. I ponder whether I could have altered this event, but haven't the time to reload and try. Civilian NPCs can be killed though; I murder my way across a city square to conclude my time with the game, and get slaughtered by guards charging into the area. Importantly I glean no enjoyment from the spree; Garrett's ambiguous morality has rubbed off quickly in our time together.

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The PC build looks gorgeous, and the audio, a brooding soundtrack that centres me in the world as effectively as my assured movements do, manages to promote menace and an an undercurrent of detached violence. Two things that are bubbling away at the heart of The City, and will likely play a bigger part as the main storyline of the game is revealed. I'll be back to find out what that is; Thief managed to captivate my interest. And more importantly, it sold me on its gameplay.

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